Magazine article Insight on the News

Local Hero Enlists 'Hood in War against Poverty

Magazine article Insight on the News

Local Hero Enlists 'Hood in War against Poverty

Article excerpt

His reputation precedes him in Addison County, a rural area on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain. He's the one Vermonters call when they need help.

Sick but no health insurance? Community Health on Wheels, an old school bus converted to a mobile medical clinic, will show up at your door. Need legal advice? The Community Law Center, born in response to cutbacks in legal-aid services, will help.

Tom Plumb, 42, whose motto might be "think locally, act locally," has been waging a crusade against poverty for more than two decades, ever since he ran summer camps as an undergraduate at Middlebury College. Since 1981, he has served as director of the Addison County Community Action Group, or ACCAG, a nonprofit organization that raises funds through private and public sources to provide local social services.

Plumb's notion of cost-effective services: Address specific problems at hand by leveraging available resources. That's how ACCAG served 1,522 households last year on an operating budget of $750,006.

Over the years, for example, ACCAG has developed a comprehensive network of services to address the issues that keep people from getting jobs. In addition to the health and legal clinics, the group-offers a food shelf, an emergency shelter, 83 units of low-income housing and a community garden. Last year, ACCAG started Retroworks, a program that teaches clients to repair and resell appliances. "Retroworks was created to address the sexy issues of the day," Plumb says. "It involves recycling used appliances; it provides a place for on-the-job training for meaningful work; and it provides low-cost appliances."

Plumb's help comes at a price. "I get criticized by other advocates for expecting people to take responsibility for their actions," he says. "If people keep coming back to the emergency food shelf every month but I find out they're spending $150 a month on pay-per-view TV, I expect that behavior to change. If they're getting a monthly check for $700 and they're spending $600 on rent, they need to work with us to find a cheaper place to live."

For Plumb, local control is the key to successful antipoverty programs. Without community ownership, social services become a breeding ground for waste and inefficiency. "If the community feels a sense of ownership," he says, "it will take pride in the outcome. Community members will participate as volunteers, as donors, and that's what makes services cost-effective. …

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